Rethinking flexibility for 50-year careers

Taking a ‘whole-career’ approach to flexibility for men and women could be the answer to improving gender equity in the boardroom. This is one of the conclusions from new cross-cultural research into professional women’s career journeys to partnerships in the UK and Germany.

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Read the brand-new Autumn 2023 issue of Think Global People magazine.

Academic Patrizia Kokot-Blamey’s new book, Gendered Hierarchies of Dependency, is published at a critical time in the conversation about how to improve gender diversity at senior levels. KPMG’s latest CEO Outlook suggests 64% of CEOS are predicting a full return to office-based working. A further 87% plan to reward employees who do so, both financially and with better opportunities; figures that have clear implications for career progression and perpetuating embedded systemic inequalities.

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The book’s cross-cultural insights from the UK and Germany into women’s experiences achieving partnership in the accounting and professional services sector carry important messages that can inform both personal and leadership direction – and help businesses sustain resilient and competitive talent pipelines for growth for the long term.The observations are especially important for leveraging legal protections around shared parental leave and the right to work flexibly, changing workplace cultures and addressing the ongoing gender imbalance at senior leadership levels – this as companies propose rolling back the remote flexible working practices trialled so successfully during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The cost of achieving partnership in the UK and Germany

In the latest issue of Think Global People, Patrizia Kokot-Blamey outlines her research and the different cultural contexts in-depth. Her comparative study of routes to partnership in the UK and Germany for women showed some common themes across the two countries, despite their significant differences. Among the conclusions were that redefining flexibility for women can help balance a senior-level career with parenthood.Joining Patrizia at the book launch in September to discuss these themes further and explore solutions were panel chair Professor Suki Sian, professor of accountancy at Queen Mary, University of London, Dr Katharina Luh, partner with EY, and Professor Elisabeth Kelan, professor of leadership and organisation at Essex University.Introducing her findings, Patrizia Kokot-Blamey noted that at first sight, women seeking partnership had a more straightforward path in the UK than in Germany. In the UK, women in accountancy outnumber those in Germany (37% versus 18%). They are also more likely to have children (60% compared to 40%) and use their firm’s structures and procedures to progress up the career ladder as opposed to the harder-to-penetrate personal networks common in Germany. However, in half of the cases, female partnership in the UK comes at the cost of the other parent downshifting their career, or giving up work completely, to organise family life and be the primary caretakers.“I thought that was very much what we like to think of as progressive, so I was really drawn to this conclusion that things were a lot better for women in the UK,” noted Patrizia Kokot-Blamey, as she introduced her findings at the launch of Gendered Hierarchies of Dependency in September. But digging deeper into her own assumptions, as well as the research around the future world of work and the impact of the current rise in the cost of living, she concludes there are valuable lessons to be learned on both sides.The research showed that in the UK, it’s easier for women to get to the top, but less secure when they get there because of biased performance management procedures that take a short-term view. In both countries, the journey to partnership also still comes with significant trade-offs around family life, as well as the ability of their domestic partner to achieve their own career goals and financial independence.“In Germany, the more you know your colleagues and the more interdependent you are, the more opinions there are about how you should be living your life because it affects them,” explained Patrizia Kokot-Blamey. “In the UK, appraisal systems are used against women in a gendered way as one of the corrosive aspects of managerialism. Women who were let go at partnership level were told there was nothing the firm could do, and they were the ‘weakest link in a falling economy’. Procedures are like guide ropes to get to the mountain top, but they are not safety nets.”In both contexts, motherhood was also a price to pay for making partnership; either not having children in 60% of cases in Germany, or through a role reversal in the UK and women working like normative fathers. This is important because family life is a fact of life.“Across the general population, 80% of us have children – we see the real sacrifices that many men and women make to be there with their children, including taking jobs below your capabilities,” said Patrizia Kokot-Blamey. “We have to conclude that unless the cost of living comes down, things aren’t going to change significantly at the top. We’ve seen the numbers stalling despite much better access.”

Rethinking flexible working

In this very human and relatable context, what can firms do to increase the proportion of women in partnership and other senior leadership and commercial roles? “The idea that there is one quick fix of increasing the number of women at the top in professional services, or in the economy more widely, is not straightforward,” responded Elisabeth Kelan. “We know from our research and the practice many organisations have engaged in over the last decade and from very committed diversity and inclusion professionals that it is not that easy. It is much more complex and will take much longer than we often think.”Senior leadership support, transparency around promotion practices, opportunities to lead business-critical projects and having the appropriate metrics are some of the tools being used with relative success, “but it’s obviously a long and lengthy process,” said Elisabeth Kelan. Visibility is also critical, said Katharina Luh, who is helping other women in her firm achieve partnership and promotion. “When it comes to what can firms actually do to increase the numbers, personally speaking I can say that having role models has been one of the most important things in my career. Now, as a change manager, we talk about the way you position these women and the platform you give them to speak to the organisation. Letting them tell their stories is also extremely important.“What we often see is that at least in the German practice, women tend to make a decision when there is a move from the senior consultant to a management role. You want to make sure you accompany women across the entire career path, so give them a valid understanding of what it means to become a partner on the one hand, and being a partner on the other side, which in my experience are two completely different things.”Something that might be more difficult to enact in the UK, with its short-term performance management culture, is taking a whole-career approach to flexibility.  “I’ve come to the conclusion that we really have to take a step back and understand careers as long games,” said Patrizia Kokot-Blamey. “A lot of us will probably be working now until we’re 70, so we’re looking at careers that span 45-50 years, and that is a very long time. I think the focus from the HR and management industry on proceduralising everything in the name of equality is something we need to be wary of. Also, consider the way performance management systems more generally prioritise performance over experience. This really shifts employers’ capacity to a short-term timeframe, its capacity to cope with the human lifecycle and restricts employees’ ability to alternate gears during their career.“When we’re talking about this crucial time between senior consultant and management for example, people do have to invest time in building a domestic life and being pregnant, having children and supporting these children,” said Patrizia Kokot-Blamey. “It does affect more women because there are more women in the labour force now, so it is affecting more companies and families.”

Changing mindsets around flexibility

“I think giving women the flexibility timewise across their career is absolutely essential,” agreed Katharina Luh. “This is flexibility that relates to timing – when do I work – but also where do I work. In that respect, the consulting business particularly has profited so much from that shift that has happened because of Covid-19.“The firm I work for offers a wide range of models that you can pick and choose from in terms of when you work, and you can change between them as you go. There’s flexibility in that you don’t have to stick to the decision that you’ve made, and you can adapt and dial up and dial down. This is absolutely essential in retaining female talent because they can also fill themselves in the new role – motherhood – and oscillate between the job and their private life to find that fine line where it works. Having that is a key factor for women in their careers and consulting.”The key is making such flexible approaches the norm for all. Professor Suki Sian observed from her own research of women in accounting firms that came back working flexibly felt like second-class citizens “who don’t get the jobs they might have had prior to taking that flexible role and some of them actually despite being on flexible hours, end up doing far more than they might have done otherwise.”For Elisabeth Kelan, this involves a mindset change for all of us. “I think what we are realising is that for the longest time, flexibility was afforded to working mothers. They created what is called in the literature the ‘mummy track’ and that is not changing. Looking at the future of work, not only will we have to work longer and pace ourselves to sustain being able to work for longer, but also that flexibility is becoming the norm for everyone.“Obviously the pandemic was a pivotal point, but we are still not quite sure how things will fall. But if you look further ahead, at what work is available, what types of jobs humans will do, where we will have more support from AI and machines, then we will see that flexible working is becoming the norm for everyone.”For now, says Patrizia Kokot-Blamey, “it’s mostly women who make these sacrifices and bear the cost. We need to step away from it being such a trade-off from missing out on being there for your children or losing everything you’ve worked for.”

Explore hybrid working, its impact on global mobility and latest practices in the Autumn issue of Think Global People magazine. Read your copy here.

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